Perhaps most famous for Joan Crawford’s Academy Award® winning performance, Mildred Pierce is one of the most forceful melodramas to come out of Hollywood. Its enduring power has less to do with Crawford’s stiff histrionics, however, than the combination of dazzling execution with a wide-eyed social critique. Like The Letter, another Warners star vehicle, Mildred demonstrates what Hollywood could do at the peak of its influence and self-confidence. It also accidentally demonstrates that cinema may not provide the best vehicle for criticizing materialism.
Mildred is an ambitious, tireless, working class divorcée determined to give her two daughters, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kaye (Jo Ann Marlowe) the advantages she never enjoyed. Through grit and determination, she achieves all the material rewards of the American Dream. In the process, however, that dream is exposed as the Big Lie, for far from assuring the family’s happiness, riches lead to its destruction.
The social focus no doubt derives from James M. Cain’s novel but, as central as it is to the story, it is easy to ignore thanks to the contributions of director Michael Curtiz and the Warners technicians. Curtiz’s visual rhetoric compresses themes and actions into stunning set ups that push the story forward with what might be called a rigorous, controlled flamboyance. For example, in an early scene, a character searches for Mildred in a murky beach house. The rooms dance with heavy shadows and the sparkle of waves refracted on the ceiling. As he runs from room to room, he accidentally knocks over a floor lamp, and the camera pans with it as it falls to the floor, casting a shaft of bright light that reveals the body of a murder victim. A vivid flourish in its own right, the shot is nonetheless grounded in what the story requires at that point.
Because Curtiz and the technicians work at such a high level of imagination, they make the complicated story unfold with an energy that rides roughshod over any gaps. Their showy skill also distracts us from Crawford’s acting limitations, making her lack of expressiveness and fluidity seem necessary. A more nuanced performance would compete with the visual extravagance. Her varnished stolidity serves like a rock around which the movie maelstrom can spin and twist.
The consequence of the film’s sleekness, however, is to undermine the social critique. You can sense the filmmakers’ itch for Mildred to succeed so that they can dress Crawford in designer ensembles and cushion her with swank. This is social melodrama as perfume commercial. Whatever criticism the film may offer of the seduction of style, it feels rather hollow when the film expressing it is an example. That irony should come as no surprise. After all, Hollywood did not become what it is by ignoring visual pleasure. So even if the story of Mildred Pierce criticizes the empty glamour of material success, the glittering surfaces contradict the criticism with an implicit, perhaps unintentional, but scarcely less powerful argument.